Robert George, McCormick Chair of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, discussed the intricacies of natural law in a recent lecture sponsored by the Federalist Society’s Notre Dame Chapter.

George defined natural law as the set of “principles for guiding human choice or action.”  In an address not only focused on law, but also the moral foundations of law, George argued that because natural law has a rational basis, so too does morality.

George, whom the NEW YORK TIMES has called the “country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker,” stressed the difference between acting in order to benefit oneself and acting when there are no such ulterior motives.  Such benefits include money, fame, popularity or prestige, which George described as “instrumental reasons” for behaving in particular ways.

Conversely, people sometimes act without expecting any kind of reward.  For example, George stated that those who perform acts of friendship do so just for the sake of the friendship.  This behavior yields an “intrinsic value” of some actions, beyond any material gain.

According to George, acting purely for intrinsic value means that the behavior is not “reducible to calculation or computation.”

To underscore the fact that natural law is based in reason, George claimed that pursuing intrinsic value is an understandable and reasonable concept.  Nobody would question the reasoning behind an act of friendship because it is intelligible to be friendly.

Similarly, George described an act of friendship that was immoral, like telling a lie to protect the reputation of a friend.  While the lying is morally wrong, people can still see the reasoning behind the lying because of the intrinsic value of friendship.

Extending this idea to the concept of human nature generally, George said that humans are constantly in pursuit of the non-instrumental result of “flourishing or declining” as a people.  Included in this pursuit are all of the aspects of life, for example health, the intellect, character, and personality.

George indicated that people act through instrumental ways, like exercising, studying, and socializing, to achieve the intrinsic value of flourishing.

In the discussion of what is good, George explained that there is not just one common good but rather there are an infinitely different number of intrinsic values, each one of which contributes differently to the flourishing of humans.  George showed that friendship and knowledge do not both result from one common good, but they do possess their own unique value.

George focused on moral norms and their effects on decision making.  In some situations, morality can easily direct our thought process and force us to act a certain way.  But, in other situations, people must choose between two morally accepted options.

In this latter case, two main ideologies apply, according to George.   First, utilitarianism demands that people should choose based on the good of society as a whole.  However, this “proposes that everything can be aggregated into a workable solution,” said George.  Such aggregation is impossible because only one common good is not a reality.  Instead, George asserted that intrinsic values “fulfill different dimensions of our being.”

George said that if one common good existed, all choices would necessarily be the right choice and regretting that choice would be impossible.  Regret becomes a reality when choices fulfill different aspects of our lives, and one must choose which of those aspects to satisfy.

The second ideology of decision making is natural law ethics.  George stated that natural law ethics entails that “one should choose options, and only those options, that are compatible with the human good in its wholeness.”

In weighing these options, one must consider morality.  Beyond acting in a reasonable manner, George urged his audience to focus on the morality that moral norms teach, thus illustrating an “openhearted love of the human good.”

George concluded his lecture by emphasizing that intelligible choices combined with moral norms are the essence of natural law.

Patrick McFarlane is a sophomore aerospace engineering major living in Stanford Hall. Contact him at